Hunting Down the Perfect Comp Is More Important Than You Think

Photo by Matthew Feeney

One of the best things you can do for your writing career is learn to select accurate comp titles for your novel. Why? A great comp is the key to unlocking the doors to successful marketing and substantial sales. How? Well, it starts by accepting that finding a great comp title is more than comparing your book to the latest bestseller. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, so let’s take it back to square one.

What Is A “Comp Title”?

“Comp titles” are “comparative” or “competitive” titles that you’ll use to describe your book with respect to content and/or audience interest. If you’re pursuing mainstream publication, comp titles will help agents, editors, and publishers decide where your book fits in the marketplace, determine sales potential, and outline exactly what type of reader to target once the book hits shelves. Moreover, writers (indie and traditional alike) can use comp titles as a mini pitch or shorthand summary if a logline has yet to be established.

What Makes A Good Comp Title?

Look for recent books—nothing more than four years old—that are not only the same genre but also have the same audience as your novel. For instance, if you write cozies, look for another cozy that has a similar setting or characters. With cozies, your goal is to attract mature readers who like mysteries without bloodshed. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense to compare your cozy to the latest Lisa Scottoline legal thriller even if you think they have a similar plot. Doing that sets an unrealistic vision of the audience you hope to attract and doesn’t provide an accurate picture of how industry professionals should market your book. Remember, selecting a comp isn’t always about finding a novel that mimics your vision—though that may help—the main tasks are to show others where your novel fits on the shelf and that your novel is similar enough to those money-making books that it will surely make money too. Rule of thumb: If a title is an editorial match but a sales dud, don’t bother putting that comparable on your list.

How Do I Find A Comp Title?

Thanks to the internet, finding a comp title should be easier than ever. Sites like Goodreads and Book Riot have put together myriads of lists categorizing titles by things like “books with doppelgangers” and “books with dragons.” If you can’t find what you’re looking for, don’t be shy. Use the social networking aspect of those sites to ask for recommendations. If you have critique partners or beta readers, they should assist you as well.

Another great way to find comp titles is to explore Amazon. The algorithms the media behemoth uses to give you those eerily accurate post-purchase recommendations are the same tools you can use to help identify several comp titles for your work. First, search Amazon for one book that directly mimics your novel. If your current book or an earlier title in the series is already on Amazon, all the better. Use that novel as your starting point. Otherwise, the common denominators you should look for to create a direct match include theme, characterization, protagonist, antagonist, conflict, setting, and/or style. Make sure to also double check genre, year of publication (stay within four years), and audience potential. Remember, for this first step, you want a direct match because this is the “patient zero” starting point from which all your results will stem.

Writers with traditional publishing aspirations should then make note of the company on that initial selection as well as those that follow. This will allow you to flaunt your knowledge if you ever query an editor from that publisher. Indie writers, on the other hand, may want to keep an eye on the money and make direct comparison to other self-published titles, so check sales rankings and keywords throughout your search.

Regardless, the next step is to scroll down and look at the “frequently bought together,” “products related to this item,” and “customers who bought this also bought” fields until you find several titles that have an essential connection to your novel. Keep clicking and spiraling down the rabbit hole until you’re satisfied with the findings. You can even read through customer reviews since many people list their age range and what else they’re reading—great demographic information that will help determine your final choice.

I’ve Got Some Comp Titles, So Now What?

Once you’ve found your comp title, present the information in a manner that will get the listener excited. Whether you’re providing this information verbally or in writing, you should work to make a succinct pitch that creates and immediate picture. There are three different methods authors can use:

Audience Appeals

“My book, [TITLE], is like Apocalypse Cow in that it will appeal to those who like dystopian stories with bawdy humor.”

This direct approach shows that you have a clear idea of the potential readership upon which you’d like to capitalize. Because the execution here is straightforward, be sure to select meaty attributes that paint a distinct picture about your work and that the comps chosen are indicative of those attributes in a highly memorable manner. Don’t select books where the person has to strain to recall one obscure moment in the middle where there’s bawdy humor. This particular example is stellar because the comp title tells us everything we need to know without us having to be 100 percent familiar with it or your writing.

Heightened Comparisons

“My book, [TITLE], is like Donna Andrews’s Terns of Endearment but set in a European monastery.”

Readers familiar with Andrews know her mystery books are laugh-out-loud hilarious. Equating yourself to her in this instance says, “I’m funny too, but I also give you stronger settings and culture.” The key with this technique is to highlight what your book does well while at the same time showing how it is unique from what’s already on the market. This approach also has the benefit of outlining exactly where to place your book in the store as well as pinpointing a potential brand—in this instance, a kooky cozy mystery writer who combines culture and Catholicism. The only caveat here is that you don’t want to pick all of your comp titles from a single author’s bibliography. You want to acknowledge that your writing has some range and that you have a broad knowledge of your genre and the industry as a whole.

Mashups

“My book, [TITLE], is Ready Player One meets The Hate You Give.”

The key here is to highlight that your novel will fill a gap in the marketplace. Therefore, when doing a mashup, it is important to pick two relevant titles that are on the opposite ends of your genre’s scale—the assumption being you fall in the middle. Although the comp titles listed here don’t occupy the same category, they are both YA books—which the publishing industry has decided is a marketing genre whether you agree or not. This particular mashup describes Slay by Brittney Morris, a YA novel that contains key elements from each book in the mashup—gaming/virtual reality meets social bias based on race.

Comp Title Takeaways

As you search for comp titles, avoid missteps by following these tips:

  • Know your genre and make sure to match it. If you write detective novels, one of your comps should reflect this. If you write for teens, select titles that cover the same age range. Since comparables are a marketing tool, don’t muddle the issue. Be clear what you’re offering.
  • Know your audience. If you don’t know the demographics for your genre, ask your fellow authors. Read up on your genre. Arm yourself with as much information as possible to ensure success.
  • Know your tropes. Reader expectation is paramount in commercial fiction. If you know your book subverts (or adheres) to those tropes in the same manner as another book, consider that title a potential comp.
  • Don’t exaggerate. Stick to books that have at least two or three direct connections to your novel. Never select a comp simply because that title is trending. You don’t want to misrepresent your work because then you’ll leave us wondering where else you’ve fibbed.
  • Don’t select something obscure thinking that it’ll win you creativity points. If a publishing professional hasn’t heard the title or can’t quickly research it, they may pass—having decided that the obscure comparison indicates that there isn’t a strong market for your book.
  • Pick at least two titles. Three to five is optimum. Anything more than that and it appears you're indecisive—or worse, wrote a novel with no clear focus.
  • Keep it current. Stay within four years of the current date. While selecting a classic may ensure a shared point of reference, an older title doesn’t demonstrate that your book will sell in today’s market. Remember, most classics weren’t bestsellers or even critical darlings when they were initially published. They became cultural touchstones over the course of decades. At the pace of today’s publishing industry, modern writers aren’t given the opportunity to play the long game. Find saleable titles that pinpoint where your book fits among your contemporaries, identifies what readers want, and does so in a manner that will clarify your genre and overall brand. If you must use classics, save them for an elevator pitch or when speaking to friends whose knowledge of contemporary literature may be limited.
  • Look for popular options, but avoid mega-hits so that you don’t look like a megalomaniac. Avoid titles from authors like J.K. Rowling, John Grisham, Nora Roberts, or Stephen King. Comparing yourself to them at an early stage in your career is like saying, “I can sing ‘I Will Always Love You’ as well as Whitney Houston.” Nope. You can’t. And let’s face it, there is no comparison. Sorry, Dolly!
  • Find titles on your desired agent’s or publisher’s client roster. This is optional but ultimately a smart move because it shows industry professionals three things: One, you did your research on their company and products; two, you understand where your book fits in the market; and three, you understand how your work will benefit them by filling a gap in their roster.
  • Read more. While it’s okay to use films as comp titles during a presentation to a non-industry audience or as an elevator pitch where you’re crunched for explanation time, you must find books to replace those examples for your query letters because agents, editors, and publishers need to understand how to market your books alongside their other titles.

Bottom line, select quality comps that represent your novel as accurately as possible, and don’t overshadow your talent. After all, the whole purpose of this endeavor is to promote your work, not pollute it.

Andrea J. Johnson

Column by Andrea J. Johnson

Andrea is a writer and editor who specializes in mystery and romance. She holds a creative writing M.F.A. from Seton Hill University and a copyediting certification from UC San Diego. Her craft essays can be found on several websites such as Funds for Writers, DIY MFA, and Submittable. She also writes book reviews and entertainment news for the women's lifestyle website Popsugar and is the author of the Victoria Justice Mysteries by Polis Books. These killer courthouse cozies follow a young stenographer who realizes her transcripts hold the key to solving a string of murders (think Law & Order meets Murder, She Wrote). To learn more about Andrea’s work, visit ajthenovelist.com or follow @ajthenovelist on Twitter.

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